Lee Sandlin     Squibs    Essays    Books    Home 

Spoonfuls of Sugar

Chicago Symphony Orchestra with John Adams at Orchestra Hall, Chicago

Music review, May 28, 1999

John Adams, the current superstar of postmodern classical music, was just in town to lead the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in two programs devoted to the American avant-garde. If only for their novelty, these were among the most interesting programs the CSO has put on in years. Adams conducted pieces that are hardly ever heard in concert: works by Charles Ives and Lou Harrison; Aaron Copland's obscure, experimental Piano Concerto; a brief piece called Facades by Philip Glass; and two strange works by Adams himself, his Violin Concerto and a new symphony called Naive and Sentimental Music. Some of these pieces were superb, all were intriguing, and together they added up to an impressive survey of 20th-century American musical eccentricity.

This was also a welcome opportunity to hear Adams conduct--until now he's achieved his notoriety as a composer. He turns out to be not bad: he always had a clear idea of what he wanted and was able to coax the orchestra into delivering it, even when it was obvious, particularly with the Glass piece, that they weren't all that impressed by what they were playing. He was even better at working the audience. He was passionate about getting the hidebound CSO subscription crowd to share his enthusiasm for wacky music and spent so much time lecturing (with musical illustrations) on what we were going to hear and how we were supposed to take it that I was relieved he didn't finish up with a pop quiz. His hard work paid off. If some of his selections had been played cold, there probably would have been boos and walkouts, but under his genial, watchful guidance everybody had a fine time. The sight of elderly CSO regulars tapping their feet and laughing to the music of Charles Ives isn't something I'm soon going to forget.

But I think Adams also had a grander ambition--in fact, I can't remember when I last heard concert programs that so clearly amounted to a manifesto. For all his celebrity, Adams has a dubious place in classical music right now. Many people admire him extravagantly and believe he's accomplished the impossible by writing serious music that appeals to a wide audience; many other people think he's an empty, gimmicky hack. These programs were plainly designed to demonstrate that he knows what he's doing and that there's a long-running tradition in American avant-garde music to back him up.

He began both programs with Ives. This was inevitable: whatever view you take of American music, Ives looms over the landscape like the Rockies. But Adams approached him rather cautiously; apparently mindful of the audience's nerves, he was careful to pick out works from the clangorous Ives catalog that wouldn't trigger a stampede. At the first concert he played the famous and relatively accessible Three Places in New England, at the second, four little collages of traditional American music (the Country Band March, the Ragtime Dance no. 4, At the River, and a hymn setting) that he'd arranged into a kind of suite. This proved to be a clever idea; people seemed to think the suite was a kind of fractured medley and that they were supposed to applaud the tunes they recognized. Adams shrewdly encouraged them by conducting with exuberant high spirits--his accepting, indulgent manner got the message across that this music was funny ha-ha and not funny strange.

He was up against a tougher challenge with Three Places in New England, which offers a more sustained exposure to the blast furnace of Ives's imagination. Adams was cunning about limiting the potential damage. He gave a long introductory lecture, had the epigraphs to each movement intoned with impressive solemnity by guest speaker George Shirley, and laid a heavy orchestral stress on the introductory scene setting. Yet all of this provided a strong, even stultifying context to contain the wild, torrential rhapsodies that followed. The whole experience was frustrating. Adams seemed to be deliberately misleading the audience into thinking this was some kind of benign and goofy historical pageant--though I have to admit it was impressive that he could get them to like it on any terms. But then American audiences are willing to put up with almost anything if they think it's patriotic.

I'm not denying that Ives was a patriot. His saturation in American pop culture, American music, American values and ideology and philosophy was so profound it amounted to a kind of religious ecstasy. The falseness lies in presenting him as a nice guy. He was just as American in his hair-trigger anger and furious xenophobia, and the radical originality with which he treated the forms of classical music sometimes seems prompted by a hatred of everything civil, decorous, traditional, and European. The turmoil of his music--the vast storm fronts of marches, hymns, jigs, ballads, hornpipes, and anthems--is really a kind of patriotic road rage, an urge to sweep away all traces of the foreign with blasts of pure homegrown energy. This can make him come off as nothing more than a foul-tempered crank, though it also resulted in the soaring grandeur of his Fourth Symphony, the Moby-Dick of American music.

So why did Adams steer away from that side of Ives? I don't think it was just to appease the audience. Adams seems genuinely interested in the unthreatening Ives, the archivist and allusionist of turn-of-the-century American pop, the one who least resembles a King Lear of the New World. This is the Ives that fits his own agenda: one of the most frequent raps against Adams's work is that it's a collage of meaningless allusions to other musical forms, to jazz and pop and late Romantic and Renaissance--but how can that be bad if he's just following the example of the greatest American composer?

Much the same logic seemed to be at work in his choice of Copland's Piano Concerto. Copland was never in Ives's league, but this piece does give an invigorating shock to anyone who thinks of him as nothing more than a hack contriver of bland Americanist travelogues such as Appalachian Spring and A Lincoln Portrait: it's edgy, nervous, and dissonant, a modernist concerto infected with jittery jazz-tinged themes. Adams seized on this jazz-classical fusion as though it were a lost masterpiece and led the CSO through a wild, thunderous, teeth-rattling performance, which for raw exhilaration compared favorably to an O'Hare runway at rush hour. What it did not do was persuade me that the piece is all that successful either as classical music or as jazz. But then I'm hardly ever persuaded by experiments in mixing the two. Each is too highly evolved on its own terms to be easily incorporated into the other, and any attempt usually results in what we got here: a frail classical structure encasing some awfully tepid jazz. (The only composer I can think of who ever succeeded at melding the two was Duke Ellington, in his amazingly fluent and gorgeous big-band recastings of Tchaikovsky and Grieg, but that may only prove that a genius can do effortlessly what nobody else can do at all.)

Still, it did make Adams's point: the American classical tradition has always reached out to other forms. Some of those forms have been pretty peculiar, and none more so than those investigated by a group of composers Adams called "American mavericks"--composers like John Cage and Harry Partch, the beat generation of American avant-garde music, which flourished in the 1950s and which shared a fascination with exoticism, experimentalism, and sheer noise. Adams's representative work from this movement was Lou Harrison's Concerto for Organ With Percussion Orchestra. Why Harrison? For one thing, Harrison's music is much more listenable than Cage's, which largely consists of accretions of random sounds; it's also more exportable than Partch's, which can be played only on his own homemade instruments. And then too, as Adams explained to the audience, Harrison's music is just "nicer" than that of his comrades.

That's true. Harrison's music is very nice, and I'm surprised that so few orchestras play it. Not that it isn't bizarre. Harrison is obsessed by the sound world of Asian music, and the concerto is typical in including parts for Korean clackers, Balinese bells, and Chinese crash cymbals. It's also typical in including instruments normally ordered out of hardware catalogs, like plumbing pipes and industrial-gas canisters (both used as chimes). The resulting cacophony sounds like nothing on earth, but it's surprisingly controlled and emotionally complex; the mood ranges from dreaminess in the middle-movement largo to high-driving passion in the allegros that flank it. That's what's always so odd about Harrison's music--despite the veneer of exoticism, its underlying structure is conservative, tonal, and sweetly melodic. He's the only composer Adams played who's never had any difficulty following the rules of classical composition--and that raises the question of how avant-garde he really is. Could he be a traditionalist in disguise? If his music were programmed more often we might have a chance to find out.

In the meantime I'll take the performances I can get--particularly when they're this committed and exuberant. This was the high point of both concerts; Adams, organ soloist Mary Preston, and a squad of CSO percussionists played the piece for all it was worth, and in some passages were almost as riotously loud as the whole CSO had been with Ives. That's part of the avant-garde tradition as well: the infantile, ecstatic urge to make as much noise as possible for the sheer hell of it.

The Harrison made for a startling contrast with the ultracool Philip Glass, represented by a bit from that famous exercise in minimalist Muzak "Glassworks." Facades is a lightweight composition even by Glass's standards: a couple of mock-melancholy saxophone lines laid over a repetitive ground of strings. It plays like the sound track for some deadpan techno-noir thriller, and serves mainly to illustrate how adept Glass is at contriving music that sounds traditional and yet has no expressive content. I will concede that it's challenging to play, at least judging by how many blown notes and miscues there were in the CSO's performance--they were clearly having a hard time being as robotic as the piece required. I can't imagine why Adams thought it was worth the trouble; it has already been perfectly encased in a technically immaculate recording, and a live performance adds nothing.

So why did Adams program it? Doubtless because Glass is essential to his own music. Adams began as a Glass-style minimalist, and his recent work, however weird and florid it seems, still has a bedrock minimalist base. The compositional principles he absorbed from Glass in his early days as a composer--the cyclical, repetitive structures, the subtle modulations, the commitment to the simplest tonalities--are still there, however obscured by an extravagant surface. Yet Adams was never content to be a pure minimalist; even in early works such as Shaker Loops and Harmonium he was already reaching for broad, even melodramatic effects that are wholly absent from the work of Glass or Steve Reich or Terry Riley. It was probably inevitable that he would wind up in his peculiar current mode, where a minimalist structure supports freakily eclectic pastiches of classical and pop.

The two works of his own that he programmed are among the most ambitious of this postminimalist phase. The Violin Concerto, from 1992, is an extended essay in fusing old-style romanticism with contemporary neoconservatism: the orchestra plays a subtly shifting tapestry of minimalist tone colors, while the violin draws a wandering, rhapsodic line of late-Wagnerian fancifulness. The big new orchestral piece Naive and Sentimental Music, which was premiered by the Los Angeles Philharmonic last fall, is even grander; it tries to duplicate the sonic power and complexity of a Beethoven symphony using a tumultuous collage of modern styles, from electronic pop to Broadway. In performance both pieces had a certain power and were at times even thrilling--they're theatrical in a way that little contemporary classical music is. But it was also clear that they're poorly conceived and ineptly executed, to the point that it's impossible to regard them as anything other than empty stunts.

The problem is one the entire concert series amply demonstrated: Adams's love of magpielike style hopping. The other composers on the programs (except Glass) begin with a deep, intimate knowledge of the principles of classical composition--even if they follow them only obliquely and covertly, as Harrison does, or treat them with open hostility, as Ives did. But Adams came of age as a composer when those principles were in eclipse, so he never really had to master them. Instead he writes a sort of impressionistic mimicry of them, just as he imitates Berlin cabaret music and bebop and Bernstein show tunes (all of which have turned up in his recent work). This gets him into serious trouble whenever he truly tries to engage with the principles. Classical theory is as complicated as it is because it has to provide the scaffolding for the most sophisticated musical forms ever devised; try to compose a concerto or symphony without it and you end up with a collapsing muddle.

That's what Adams has achieved. The violin line in his concerto does sound sort of like a solo part from a real Romantic work (and the guest violinist, Vadim Repin, did make it look fun to play), but it's meandering and pointless in a way that Mendelssohn or Sibelius never is. And Adams's attempt to blend it with the pop-minimalist orchestral setting was excruciating--the two modes just won't fit together in any meaningful sense. Naive and Sentimental Music was even worse. Despite a lot of lovely, glittering surface effects, it's undone by Adams's primitive notion of the symphonic-sonata structure, which he seems to think means just adding more and more instruments playing louder and louder. The result is rather like a symphony as it might strike a bored and uncomprehending child: a lot of jarring, overblown, meaningless noise.

It was disappointing that both concerts ended so limply (and I should say that Adams has written better music, including his recent orchestral pieces El Dorado and Century Rolls). Nevertheless, I came away thinking that Adams does deserve to be a major figure in contemporary music. He may not be a great composer, but he's a great showman--and I don't mean that as a backhanded compliment. One of the reasons classical music lost so much of its audience over the last several decades is that composers kept churning out works of hieratic solemnity that were played only to hushed circles of initiates. They forgot that the best art has what Wallace Stevens once called "an essential gaudiness." Adams has a glutton's taste for that gaudiness, and his programs were consistently surprising in a way classical concerts rarely are. It would be a grand and admirable thing if he could make a career out of taking avant-garde pieces that are dismissed as difficult or dull and making them accessible and entertaining. Postmodern music could sorely use a P.T. Barnum--somebody who could revive the venerable American traditions of dazzlement and flabbergastery.